Coming four years after Clapton’s last studio output, 461 Ocean Boulevard was the album he needed to steady the ship going forward. Since the release of Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs with Derek and the Dominos in 1970, Clapton had witnessed the disintegration of the Dominos, the death of Duane Allman and had remained holed up in his Surrey home, too paranoid to venture outdoors due to the cocktail of drugs he was on at the time.
Between 1970 and 1974 he played live on stage only twice, the first time being at Madison Square Garden for George Harrison’s Concert For Bangladesh concerts on the 1st August 1971. Footage and audio taken from these shows highlight Clapton’s condition at the time and it wasn’t good. His playing compared to that of a year earlier with Derek and the Dominos was sub-standard and not what fans and music critics expected from a Guitar God. The second time Clapton played live was a year and a half later on the 13th January 1973, where he would perform live with friends in a highly anticipated comeback at the Rainbow Theatre in London. While the recordings from these shows are exciting to listen to there remained a considerable drop in playing, especially when compared to the Derek and the Dominos tour of 1970 which many people (myself included) consider to be Clapton’s prime year in terms of playing and ability.
The opening track, Motherless Children, is a traditional song previously performed by bluesman Blind Willie McTell among others and originally debuted four years earlier during the Derek and the Dominos US tour of 1970. That version, performed live at the Electric Factory in Philadelphia on the 16th October 1970 is different to the studio version found on 461 Ocean Boulevard but there’s no doubt that Clapton’s version of the song originated then. Arranged by Clapton and ex-Dominos bassist Carl Radle, it provides a solid foundation as an opening number on this comeback album. Give Me Strength is the second track on the album and the first penned by Clapton himself, his first original song to be released since 1970’s Layla album. It’s a beautiful, heartfelt song with some divine slide guitar playing and an immediate favourite on the album itself. The third song, Willie And The Hand Jive, takes things in a completely different direction with it’s reggae influence. Originally recorded in 1958 by Johnny Otis, this song is the first of three reggae based songs which would take Clapton’s career in a new direction and influence more songs on his next album, There’s One In Every Crowd, which was recorded in Jamaica.
- Motherless Children
- Give Me Strength
- Willie And The Hand Jive
- Get Ready
- I Shot The Sheriff
- I Can’t Hold Out
- Please Be With Me
- Let It Grow
- Steady Rollin’ Man
- Mainline Florida
Get Ready is the second original number from Clapton (co-written with Yvonne Elliman) and is presumably the first song he wrote in a reggae style. For me it’s probably the least interesting song on the album because it doesn’t really escalate or go anywhere but it has a number of lovely moments, most notably the overall musicianship between the band members. It’s immediately followed by Clapton’s first solo number 1 single, I Shot The Sheriff, originally recorded by Bob Marley a year earlier in 1973. This is without a doubt one of Clapton’s most well known songs and performances and in many ways it dwarfs the original version to the point where Clapton’s is considered the definitive by many people. Reggae then turns back to blues with the Elmore James cover I Can’t Hold Out. As far as blues covers go this one is absolutely exquisite on so many levels from the opening guitar riff to the beautiful keys in the background. Clapton’s vocals are strong as well and add to the overall mood and feel of the song. Carl Radle’s bass playing is at it’s very finest as well, subtle yet ever present. One of the greatest bass players of all time without a shadow of a doubt.
Please Be With Me is a wonderful song written by Scott Boyer when he was in the band Cowboy, who signed with Capricorn Records, the same label The Allman Brothers Band were on at the time. What’s interesting about this particular song is that Duane Allman played slide guitar on that original Cowboy version, and of course Duane played on the Layla album with Derek and the Dominos. I like to think the inclusion of this song is a tribute for Duane who tragically died in October 1971, less than a year since his last show with Derek and the Dominos in Syracuse, NY. Please Be With Me is then followed by another acoustic driven song, Let It Grow. Another Clapton original number, the song builds and builds throughout around a gorgeous chord progression. Clapton and Yvonne Elliman supply some divine vocals here especially during the chorus section with the two of them singing together. The extended solo section that ends the song is one of the highlights on the whole album that fades out beautifully, before things get bluesier to end the album.
Steady Rollin’ Man is a Robert Johnson song, one of many Clapton has covered in his career. The track is a 12 bar blues but Clapton effortlessly fuses it with rock and creates another classic cover. Clapton is on fine form vocal wise with one of his best performances on the entire album. Mainline Florida is the final song on 461 Ocean Boulevard and ends the album in fantastic fashion. Written by George Terry, who played guitar and supplied backing vocals on the album, the song is based around an infectious guitar riff. The verses are as catchy as anything you’ll hear on the album with an extremely exciting guitar solo following before the third and final verse comes in. The song fades out after another solo dripping with wah. Perfection on every level and one hell of a way to end the album.
461 Ocean Boulevard is fantastic, especially given the circumstances leading up to it’s recording. It’s remarkable that Clapton came back so strongly after getting caught up badly with drugs in the three years before it’s release. The album remains one of the finest of Clapton’s career and certainly one of the best albums of the 1970’s. In comparison to other landmark albums Clapton recorded earlier in his career, it probably doesn’t rank alongside something as classic as Layla And Other Assorted Love Songs but in many ways it’s a perfect successor to that album. The blues/rock songs on 461 Ocean Boulevard could have been recorded by the Dominos themselves, after all two of the four members feature on the album. It makes you wonder if this could have been a Derek and the Dominos album if things had turned out differently three years earlier, they were of course recorded in the same studio and produced by the same producer, the late great Tom Dowd.